A new Zionism

Jonathan Nizar Elkhoury advocates for Israel’s Christian community.

Jonathan Nizar Elkhoury (photo credit: ALI ADI)
Jonathan Nizar Elkhoury
(photo credit: ALI ADI)
The Jerusalem Salon, founded by Shayna Hulkower, Sarah Leah Rodin and Judith Rozen, is a meeting place for discussions on a variety of academic, Torah and Israel-related topics. They host a plethora of speakers, the most recent of whom was Jonathan Nizar Elkhoury. Elkhoury, a spokesman for the Christian Empowerment Council, led a discussion on August 31, titled ”Arab, Christian, Zionist.”
Elkhoury was born in Lebanon in 1992 during the first Lebanon war, and his father was a soldier in the South Lebanon Army, which was established in 1982 with Israel’s help. The hope was that the army would be a deterrent against Christian persecution at the hands of the PLO and subsequently Hezbollah.
But by 2000, the situation had deteriorated to such an extent that Elkhoury’s father fled to Israel. Elkhoury, along with his brother and mother, left in August 2001.
They arrived first in Nahariya, which is only three kilometers from Lebanon. Upon reuniting with his father, the family moved to Haifa because of its reputation as a mixed city. “We got a lot of help from Israeli society because of the South Lebanon Army’s contribution,” Elkhoury explains. “They welcomed us and did everything for us to feel at home. Today we are about 500 families, but back then we were closer to 1,000. A lot of them went back to Lebanon because they were afraid of a new beginning.”
Elkhoury and his family persevered, even when adjusting to Israeli life was difficult. Elkhoury was nine when his family came to Haifa. He spoke only Arabic and English, after attending an English school in Lebanon, and his family was desperate to find a school for him. The Arabic schools, which would have been the natural first choice, did not accept him because they saw the family as traitors. “We were in the middle because we are not Jewish, and both the Muslims and the other Christians were not accepting us because of our background,” Elkhoury says. “So we went to the Jewish schools because they opened their gates.” All the teachers helped Elkhoury with Hebrew and in three months, he learned to speak fluently.
In 11th grade, all of his classmates received their draft notices for the IDF. Elkhoury was told that he had the choice to opt out. He wanted to contribute to Israel; to give back to the country that had taken his family in when they were running for their lives. He ended up doing National Service for two years at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. While there, it became glaringly obvious to him how many Arabs and Christians choose not to join either the IDF or National Service. “I realized that we need to start talking about this,” Elkhoury says. “You are part of this society, like I am, so you need to do something to contribute. I really believe in that. We are here and we don’t have anywhere else to go.”
It was this experience that fueled his work today as an advocate for the Christian minority in Israel and a galvanizer, attempting to get Israeli Christians more involved in giving back to their country. With a population of only 137,000, the Christian voice is not one that’s heard loudly in Israel. This is partially due to the fact that Christians like Elkhoury are alienated from Arab Israelis. “Every day I ask myself, in this group what should I call myself, Israeli or Palestinian?” he says. “All the Arabs are offended by the fact that I say I’m not an Arab. But we, the Christian Lebanese, say that our nationality is Lebanese.
They think that we’re trying to say we’re better than them, but that’s not true. My family stayed in Lebanon for 16 generations, so I’m definitely not an Arab. We were forced to speak Arabic in this region. We are Phoenicians or maybe Aramaic.”
For Elkhoury, the biggest challenge facing Christians in Israel today is the Christians themselves. “They don’t understand what kind of position they have in society,” Elkhoury adds.
“We are a quiet community that wants to fit in because we are a minority within a minority.”
Elkhoury is also concerned about recent attempts to co-opt Israel’s Christian community for the use of the Palestinian political agenda. “Christians are not really like that, but we are not saying it,” he states. “We need to speak freely about what we think. Abbas recently tried to say that Jesus was a Palestinian! The Christians are not buying that.”
He represents the Christian Empowerment Council in Knesset committees. He recently helped pass a law that penalizes non-Jews from trying to dissuade other minorities from joining the IDF. This law previously only applied to Jews. While he is not under the impression that Israel is perfect, he is actively working to engage his community to shape the future. “We have discrimination and racism here, but our obligation as citizens of this country is to try and make the situation better, not as outsiders who want to destroy the system, but from within.”
For more information on the CEC: cecisrael.org For more information on the Jerusalem Salon and to find out about upcoming speakers: www.jerusalemsalon.org